Q&A with Kath Engebretson

We caught up with author, Dr Kath Engebretson and found out the story behind her novel, Nineteen Days.

“A story of hope, and of redemption for those who seem unredeemable.”

What inspired the writing of Nineteen Days?

The story is set on a cruise from Sydney to Honolulu, taking in ports in New Zealand and French Polynesia. My late husband, David, loved cruising and together we did eight different cruises. Like Genevieve in the book, I was sometimes a half-willing participant. Like her, I prefer quiet pursuits, and sometimes found the forced togetherness of cruises difficult. What I did enjoy, though, was watching my fellow passengers, in all their differences, from the elderly, to young families, to baby boomer couples like us, to those who stood out for some reason, like Thomas. On one cruise, I spoke briefly to a man with Thomas’s physical characteristics, but never had the chance to get to know him better. The idea came to me to weave a character around him, and the story took off from there.

It is a very interesting setting for your novel. Have you personally experienced walls breaking down in a ‘trapped’ environment?

The interesting thing about cruising is that you can find yourself in conversation with people you would never meet in your daily life, people whose lifestyles and stories are quite different from your own. On certain cruises, I sometimes found myself telling my story to perfect strangers, and listening as they told theirs. I made connections with a range of interesting people, At the beginning of the story, Genevieve and Thomas become friends very quickly. This may seem unrealistic, but each of them is lonely and each struggles with trauma. Each is at a point in their lives where they have big stories to tell, and for each their first few meetings are almost an experience of Ah! I found you. In the confined space, with hours to fill, it is easy, if you want to, to make friends and learn about people you would otherwise never meet. It’s like that for Genevieve and Thomas. Their friendship begins quickly, but it gathers in strength rather than withers, because they are both communicators, and listeners, and they fill a need for each other. .

Your books feature strong female leads out of their comfort zones. Do these situations strike a cord with you or are you interested in how the human character handles adversity?

Both. I’m interested in the ways in which women, in particular, forge their way through difficult times. In Red Dirt Odyssey, Alice finds herself alone after a long marriage, and decides, in some trepidation, to take a journey into the outback with no plan and no set timeline. In Nineteen Days, Genevieve is dealing with a terrible tragedy, and trying to deal with it alone. I’m interested in the quiet thinking women do about their situations, and how in conversation with the right person, everything becomes clearer, and a way forward can present itself. In Thomas, Genevieve finds someone who, simply in the act of listening, shows her a way through the fog. Every character in the story carries a burden, and even in the unlikely friendship between Peter, Genevieve’s husband, and the younger Martin, the burdens are shared and lightened. Ultimately, each finds a way forward to a new beginning.

Your female leads in both of your books are Boomers’. Is this a comfortable space for you to write in or do you feel Baby Boomers are under represented in literature?

s“Write what you know.” I am a Baby Boomer as are Genevieve and her husband Peter. By now, we Boomers have had a lot of experiences. We’ve raised families, developed and maintained careers, often we have grandchildren, and most of us, in some way, have experienced loss and even tragedy. We’re not young anymore, but we still make mistakes, we struggle, we feel joy, we want to thrive, but we must continually navigate the challenges that continue to come our way. I resonate with Genevieve in the mistakes she has made, but also in her ability to finally forgive, and to try to put things right. Yes, I think Boomers are under-represented in literature. Recently I loved Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend about a group of older women trying to make sense of their stage of life, and seeking ways into their future. Nineteen Days is sometimes a harrowing story, but it is a story of hope, and of redemption for those who seem unredeemable.

One character in Nineteen Days is an autistic boy. Why is he there?

Timmy just arrived. At first, he was one of the passing parade, but later he became an important lynchpin in the story. Through Timmy, Martin faces up to his own selfishness and lack of responsibility, Thomas, longing for family, finds a family member, and Peter and Martin make a connection. Through their fraught discussion of fatherhood, inspired by Timmy, Genevieve and Peter begin to come to a deeper understanding of each other, and finally to a place of healing. In his innocence and simple joy, Timmy unwittingly takes each of the characters to a better place. .

Nineteen Days is due out 6 August 2020. Red Dirt Odyssey is out now. Connect with Kath on her website.